Even if you're not a self-proclaimed yogi, you've likely done downward dog many times (the popular pose seems to make its way into every flow). But you might be less familiar with another canine-inspired posture: puppy pose or uttana shishosana.
Not only does it sound cute, but this powerful posture — which involves a deep backbend — boasts some pretty sweet mind-body benefits. From improving your posture to promoting relaxation and healthy circulation, puppy pose definitely deserves a spot in your daily schedule (think: a post-workout stretch or to wind down at the end of the before bed).
You can even sneak in puppy pose periodically throughout the workday to break up bouts of sitting, says Candace Harding, DPT, a physical therapist and yoga instructor based in Arlington, Virginia. And since it's gentle on your body, it's safe to be done as needed.
How to Do Puppy Pose
- Start in a tabletop position with your hips over your knees and shoulders over your wrists.
- Engage your abdominals by pulling your belly button in toward your spine and up toward your ribcage. It should be a gentle drawing in, not a full sucking in of your stomach.
- Walk your hands forward until your arms are outstretched in front of you, allowing your chest to lower between your shoulders.
- Keep your palms flat on the mat and actively press into your hands, maintaining an elevated position of your elbows from the floor.
- Look down toward the floor, keeping your neck in line with the rest of your spine and making sure your hips have remained stacked over your knees.
- Hold for one minute or 6 to 10 breaths.
If you need a little extra support, place a bolster or pillow lengthwise under your body or horizontally underneath your armpits, Harding says.
5 Puppy Pose Benefits
Here are just a few reasons to make puppy pose a part of your daily routine:
1. It Stretches the Spine and Reduces Tension in Your Back
Puppy pose is a perfect stretch for your spine, especially since it targets your upper and lower back.
"The upper back (thoracic spine) naturally has a kyphosis, or a 'c' shaped curve," Harding says. But many of us hold our tension in this area, and over time, it can become super stiff. "Puppy pose reverses the kyphosis and brings it into extension," Harding says. By doing so, it reinforces the spine's flexibility.
"The same can be said for the low back (lumbar spine), which naturally has a lordosis, or a backwards 'c' shape," Harding says. "For many people, prolonged sitting results in a reversal of the normal lordosis that should be present in the low back."
The good news: "This posture will help restore or maintain the lumbar spine's ability to achieve its natural position," she says. And when your spine is in a healthy, neutral position, you'll experience less back pain.
2. It Opens the Chest
If you sit slouched at a desk all day, odds are your chest muscles are bearing the brunt of it. Poor posture can constrict your pectoral region, and this can cause a damaging domino effect for your diaphragm, which may become restricted in movement (read: it won't be able to fully expand when you're breathing).
Case in point: A January 2016 study in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that poor posture limited lung capacity. Problem is, when your body doesn't receive the oxygen it needs, you'll likely feel fatigued.
Enter puppy pose: This stretch can help combat poor posture by opening the chest. In fact, it stretches three primary muscles on the anterior chest wall: the pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and serratus anterior, Harding says.
- The pectoralis major is the largest muscle of the chest and inserts onto your humerus (upper arm bone).
- The pectoralis minor, a smaller muscle located underneath the pec major, inserts on a portion of the shoulder blade.
- The serratus anterior, a fan-shaped muscle, covers ribs one through nine and inserts on a portion of the shoulder blade.
"Puppy pose provides a stretch to a portion of the pectoralis major, because of its actions in shoulder abduction and extension," Harding says.
The posture also involves the pectoralis minor and serratus anterior, which produce scapular protraction, i.e., "the motion of bringing your shoulders forward to create an exaggeration of upper back 'rounding,'" she says.
3. It Stretches Rounded Shoulders
Slumped shoulders are another signpost of poor posture. Hours at a laptop can result in that signature shoulder rounding, despite our best intentions to sit straight. Puppy pose, which stretches your serratus anterior, can help with this slouched-shoulder issue.
Here's why: Your serratus anterior plays a role as a shoulder stabilizer and impacts how well your shoulder blades move. So if your serratus anterior is stiff, your shoulders will suffer, too.
By requiring shoulder flexion and abduction, as well as scapular retraction, puppy pose lengthens and stretches the serratus anterior, Harding says. And when these muscles are loose and limber, your shoulders will be in better shape too (think: reduced rounding and improved posture).
4. It Helps Calm You
Not only does puppy pose promote good posture, but it can also support a sense of peacefulness and relaxation in your body.
Our nervous system is made up of two parts: the parasympathetic (responsible for rest and digestion) and sympathetic (controls our fight or flight response), Harding says.
"Any posture that primarily exposes your back (versus the front of your body) is one of innate safety, thus promoting, parasympathetic nervous system activation," she says.
Think of it this way: In this back-facing-up position, the hard, sturdy bones of your spine and ribcage can protect and shield your body's more vulnerable structures (like your organs), Harding says.
In other words, "we feel 'physically safer' with our backs exposed, so it helps calm us on a subconscious level," she says.
5. It Increases Circulation
Puppy pose can also boost your blood flow. This benefit relates in part to the pose's positioning, which places your hips above your heart. Gravity helps improve venous "return of blood flow to your lungs for re-oxygenation and your heart for distribution back to your muscles," Harding says.
This little assist is especially useful, since our venous system (responsible for circulation of blood toward the heart) is less elastic than our arterial system (which brings blood away from the heart), she says.
Most importantly, good circulation is key to overall health. "Blood carries oxygen, which our bodies utilize to create energy for all cell functions and to support life," Harding says.